Commodification of dissent

Task 5: A discussion of an image or artefact that was created in the context of protest/activism, but was appropriated by commercial culture.

To Build And Defend Ash-Grey Tshirt

Pretty much any poster or slogan used during the Vietnam-war period can be redesigned and used in today commercial culture. These commodities usually take form of fashion, decoration or souvenir. The abundance of them on Hanoi streets is yet, another everyday common scene as Hanoi is a highly attractive destination for tourists. Yes, that means these goods were made to be sold to tourists, mostly American specifically. The questions are: why they’d buy a t-shirt that portrays the image of a half-broken air-craft craved with USA flag – an artefact of the war?; what is this that being offered to them? Let’s exclude those who decide to splurge on this for the sake of curiosity or simply as a gift. For those who consume it on a daily basis and consider it as a part of their lifestyle, what are they looking for? And what are they trying to say? A Style? A statement?

Everyone who knows of Vietnam War is familiar with the ‘Cong’ concept. ‘Cong’ is also the name of a very popular coffee chain in Vietnam. They are not only simply selling products printed with ‘Cong’ elements, but they also adapt the concept with its every manifestation: from the logo design, the use of colours, the vintage 50s-60s furniture to a rack full of culture and art books published decades ago. They are trying to bring back the atmosphere of a long-gone period. The objects on display are real, physical objects; but their values, their stories have been weathered with time. Yet they are most popular among the youth culture, those who were born far after the chaotic period; and perhaps, do not even bother to have a look at their history book because they are often seen too busy taking selfie or typing on their new updated smartphone. 

A corner of Cong Ca Phe

Maybe they just like the style or the colour. Maybe they just want to be a part of something. Something ‘cool’. Something they are not.

List of images:

To Build And Defend Ash-Grey Tshirt. Available from: (Accessed 18 November 2015).

Cong Ca Phe. Available from: (Accessed 18 November 2015).


C o l l e c t i v e

Task 4: A discussion of the relationship between the designer and social movements.

Picture taken of The Common House wall during our visit. 

There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives. Our struggles are particular, but we are not alone.

– Audre Lorde

We Design Activism students got the chance to visit The Common House, a collectively managed space for radical groups, projects and community events located in East End London during our latest session. What it’s called tells the story of why it’s needed to happen. Due to the expensive rent in London, renting the space together has enabled The Common House organisers to offer a common space for everyone who shares common problems to meet, talk, organize, make banner, props, watch movie, party, have fun and do everything in a collective way.


A print by Riso Print Club, The Common House. 

The Common House is not just a space to be used or consumed, but is a collective attempt to organize and maintain infrastructure and resources for radical ideas and practices. A commons is different to private space (individually owned) and public space (state maintained). It is maintained by the people who use it. It has members, not consumers.

‘Collective’ is not a new concept in the social enterprise world. Through it we empower individuals voice, channel creativity and drive innovation.  As Nina Felshin suggested in her book ‘But is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism’, the power of collective action is unmeasurable and complemented by the employment of media technology. It “successfully embodies and serves the work’s activist goals” and is “an important factor in the work’s impact.” Nina also agreed with philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s observation on collaborative methods over three decades ago “as new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression. Teamwork succeeds private effort.”

It doesn’t require much effort to point out the obvious purposes of adopting the concept of collective action and transfer it to a physical common space. Whatever the group activity is, either sharing ideas, organizing workshop or handling reproduction (managing radical archive, radical print collective, etc), it’s been employed by activists and artists to expand their collaborative way of working to an audience or community, to make sure information are being circulated, and most important of all, to create a culture that is central to social changes.


Achwal, N (2011). The best ideas of 2011: The power of collective action. [Internet]. Available from: <; [Accessed 10/11/2015]

Felshin, N (1995). But is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism. USA: Bay Press, Inc.


Task 3: A discussion of an aspect of digital activism, drawing on the documentary film We Are Legion  and additional academic research.

The myriad of discussion topics within digital activism has led to my topic indecision and hence the delay of this post….so, my apology. 

#Hashtagactivism (google search)

Digital activism is undoubtedly a rich land to grow discussions among critics, activists and scholars. The wide variety of topics spreads from practice methods, organisational structure, political effectiveness to ethical issues and so on. Some critics would argue that online social movement faces the challenge of volatility or instability due to its loose and flexible structure (Joyce, 2010), however, my take on this debate is to focus on the possibility and potential that the Internet has offered to collective action in this social network era.

Mary Joyce, author of Digital Activism Decoded The New Mechanics of Change, suggested that one of the potentials of the Internet for collective action is the ability to disseminate information and to draw attention to their main cause. This has brought me to the introduction of hashtag activism as a form of activist storytelling and a way to encourage people to participate in conversations about current social issues (Boyd and Mitchell, 2012).

As “The first step in solving a problem is recognising there is one”, said William Duncan McAvoy – lead anchor on News Night, the hashtag activism serves well as a debate trigger and is ‘designed to convene the conversation’ among activists.  From campaign leaders point of view, if a hashtag is strategically and proactively defined, activists can use it as a framed device to effectively polarise a discussion, hence draw more people to their side of the debate.  As for potentially interested public, hashtag could be used as an effective tool to navigate their way through the mess of information overload on the Internet and focus on their cause for concern. Additionally, authors of Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution considered hashtag not just as a theory but also “the most literal manifestation of a broader tendency of our highly connected socially mediated environment toward greater interactive activity” (Boyd and Mitchell, 2012).

As natural as a coin has two sides, along with other tactics used online by activists hashtag activism faces an accusation of ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ (Albright, 2015)  Since hashtags are great for sparking initial interest and conversation, there is also a possibility that suggests they are not as effective in the long term and hence “it has no effect whatever on the planet, but it makes people feel good about themselves”, said George Will – newspaper columnist and political commentator (Bordelon, 2014). However, I personally think that this is not the case. It only takes a nanosecond to ‘like’ something on Facebook, compared to the process of composing a content with hashtag that reflects your concern and compassion toward a current issue, hashtag obviously plays a much different role. Though to be fair, the effectiveness level of a campaign can only be assessed by its leaders.  But if nothing else, the least we can do is to spread the truth.

Meanwhile, have a look at this inspiring collection of the most powerful hashtags  in 2014.


Martin Luther King Rr in the new era of hashtag activism


Albright, D (2015). Hashtag Activism: #powerful or #pointless?. Available from: (Accessed 28 October 2015)

Bordelon, B (2014). George Will Mocks #BringBackOurGirls: ‘An Exercise in Self-Esteem’. Available from: (Accessed 1 December 2015)

Joyce, M (2010). Digital Activism Decoded: The New Mechanics of Change. New York: IDEA.

Boyd, A. and Mitchell, D. O. (2012) Beautiful trouble: A Toolbox for revolution. United States: OR Books.


Sayre, S & King, C (2010). Entertainment and Society: Influences, Impacts and Innovation. New York: Routledge.

Hands, J. (2010) @ is for activism: Dissent, resistance and rebellion in a digital culture. London: Pluto Press.

List of images:

#hashtagacitivsm. Available from: (Accessed 28 November 2015)

Martin Luther King Rr in the new era of hashtag activism. Available from: (Accessed 28 November 2015)

The Ultimate Freedom Zone

Task 2: Write a rationale of an intervention in public space, based on group work, academic and spatial research.

The scenarios:

  1. A fine day in Canary Wharf, everyone was enjoying their outdoor lunch. The brokers, the investors, the officers, the bankers and many other citizens of the major business district. Everyone but this homeless man whom was asked to leave his resting spot by a security guard.
  2. In a healthy democratic society, the right to peaceful public protest is essential. However, the Occupy activists were legally prevented to conduct a demonstration protest targeting financial institutions on Paternoster Square, which was the location of London Stock Exchange (Minton, 2011).

The reason why? 4 words: Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS)


The Pops Profiler, by Casa student Oliver Dawkins, shows privately owned public space in London’s Square Mile

Sociologist Richard Sennet has described POPS as the ‘dead public space’, not because they are not ‘enjoyable’, despite the ‘essence of conviviality, spontaneity, encounter and yes that little sprinkles of chaos, have been stripped out’, but ‘dead because the potential range of spatial engagement here can fit in a coffee cup’ (Sennett and Richard, 1988).

Discussing the issues around POPS, Anna Minton in “Ground Control:Fear and happiness in the Twenty-first-century city” indicated one key feature of the new ‘public-private’ developments as its function of social sorting (Minton, 2012). This means when a public place is privately owned, it’s governed to ensure only certain types of activities and certain types of people. This reminds me of the ‘marginalized group’ or ‘the other’ concept once brought to prominence by French philosopher Michael Foucault now becomes revenant to the contemporary context of the city. This groups, according to Anna, are typical ‘beggars’, ‘homeless’ and people who practice ‘skateboarding’ or ‘rollerblading’ (Minton, 2006).

While brainstorming for our public intervention plan, my group and I have conducted a list of POPS issues and reasons why people should be aware of it.

POPS issues:

  • heavily underused
  • ambiguous / invisible rule
  • excluding social groups/social sorting
  • dictating behaviours:  encouraging certain behaviours, while discouraging others
  • a threat for street politicians
  • risks of losing local character over corporate sterility

After identifying the point of intervention as Trafalgar Square, we decided to apply ‘The Autonomy Zone’ principle Using ‘The Autonomy Zone’ principle suggested in the ‘Beautiful Trouble: A Toolkit For Revolution’ for our public intervention.

*Points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of a system and open the way to change. By understanding these different points, organizers can develop a strategy that identifies the best places to intervene in order to have the greatest impact (Reinsborough  and Canning, 2012)

Located in Trafalgar Square, it will take form of a semi-opened mobile box called ‘The Ultimate Freedom Zone’ (UFZ), with function of a mini exhibition and learning space that provides people with information about POPS in London (Vasagar, 2012) as well as encourages them to do whatever they want within the zone: be it talking, sleeping, dancing, singing, or group meeting, etc. It will also feature an interactive quiz created by a group of journalists from The Guardian.

Have a look at the Private or Public – Can you spot the difference quiz here (Garret,2015)

Beyond the awareness of POPS, with UFZ, we also hope that it will serve as a discussion platform for everyone to generate solutions to unlock the full potential for social benefit and private economic growth.


A sketch of UFZ model 


Minton, A. (2012) Ground control: Fear and happiness in the Twenty-first-century city. United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Minton, A (2011). Private spaces are stifling protest. [Internet]. Available from: (Accessed 27 October 2015).

Minton, A (2006). The privatisation of public space. London: Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

Garret, B (2015). The privatisation of cities’ public spaces is escalating. It is time to take a stand. [Internet]. Available from: (Accessed 27 October 2015).

Reinsborough, P & Canning, D (2012). Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox For Revolution. New York: OR Books.

Sennett, R. and Richard, S. (1988) The fall of public man: [on the social psychology of capitalism]. 1st edn. New York, NY: Random House USA

Vasagar, J (2012). Privately owned public space: where are they and who owns them? [Internet]. Available from: (Accessed 27 October 2015).

List of images:

Dawkins, O. (no date) The Pops Profiler. Available from: (Accessed 27 October 2015).



Ai Weiwei: Urm,…

Task 1: Research a particular protest movement or political visual artist, or a singular campaign/protest/piece, based on your reading of Duncombe and Lambert’s text, additional academic research and group discussion.

ai weiwei-9

Straight (reduced to 90 tonnes) by Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.

I chose Straight by Ai Weiwei to be the topic for this task of Design Activism portfolio writing because it was where my journey in defining ‘political art’ started with. I am aware that I am very likely to break the 250word limit. However, acknowledging the importance of contextualization, which I’ve learnt in Design Cultures and Histories last year, the thoughts just need to be visualised.

The original Straight is a rearrangement composed of 150 tonnes of straightened steel rods, used to reinforce concrete building in Chinese housing construction (Clark, 2011). These steels are not just some normal construction materiality but those collected and mangled from the site of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Sichuan in 2008.

In 2008, Ai Weiwei gathered a group called ‘Citizen’s Investigation’ for his quest in recovering the truth about the number of students that are victims of the natural disaster, which he believed had been covered up by the authorities; and at the same time uncovering the truth of Chinese officials corruption.  As of 14 March 2009, the list had accumulated to 5385 names. He published the collected names and wrote on his blog:” To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors…we will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.” (Weiwei, 2009)

ai weiwei-12

Display of the list in Main Hall, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.

Ai’s exposure of the official corruption and shoddy building practices led to increased scrutiny of him by the Chinese government. In 2011, Ai was placed under house for 81 days on suspicion of “economic crimes”, which, according to journalist Edward Wong, indicates the authorities’ “failures to properly comply with regulations on regulations on business registration or taxation.” International government, human rights groups and arts community mobilised petition, calling for Ai’s release while his whereabouts had not been notified by Chinese authorities (Ng, 2011).

After the release in 2011, Ai came straight back to his studio where the first thing he heard was the sound of his team working on the rebars. He thought it was ‘incredibly powerful’. And that’s how Straight was born.

ai weiwei-15

Straight by Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.

Despite being admired and renowned by the Western world as a dissentient artivist, Ai Weiwei remains little known in China which leads me to question whether if any of his art does matter, politically. Ai might be the master of making extremely exotic experiences for museumgoers by representing a powerful exploration of Chinese culture, history and material, taking them to one wow to another with a huge bulky arrangement or his courage (which some may refer to as ‘ugly nihilism’) in breaking a 2000-year-old piece urn to make a triptych work (Perl, 2013). However, without the description or narrative provided through the high-tech museum guiding device, how many of his work can be appreciated and considered as (political) art? The problem with political art critiques is that they pay too much attention on the politics. This does not mean that an artist’s politics is not important, though the idea of saluting Ai as a political artivist in the art museum by pleading his case every time is just another fraud to me.


Clark, N (2015). Ai Weiwei: Artist’s monumental sculpture Straight to be exhibited at the Royal Academy. Available from: (Accessed 28 October 2015).

Ng, D (2011). LACMA, other museum demand release of Ai Weiwei in petition. . Available from: (Accessed 28 October 2015).

Perl, J. (2013) Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist. Available at: (Accessed: 8 December 2015).

Weiwei, Ai (2011). Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006–2009. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Weiwei, Ai (2009). 5.12遇难学生名单 补充 (八十四) 09.04.11. Available from: (Accessed 29 October 2015).

List of images:

All photographs were taken by me unless stated otherwise.